Reviving a proud family tradition

No two people were glad to see the calendar turn over from 2015 to 2016 than Steve and Brian Wilhite.

The father-son race team from Edinburgh just suffered through a disastrous racing season, and they are looking forward to the new year with a bright attitude as they prepare their cars for the upcoming campaign.

Fielding both a late model and modified locally last year, the Wilhites suffered through nine engine failures. That’s right — nine. Most racers, after one or two blown engines, would be done for the year or quit altogether. Not the Wilhites, who have fielded cars locally since 1969.

“We got with Bill Tranter of Franklin regarding a new engine at the end of the last year,” said Brian Wilhite, the team’s driver. “He told us what was causing our issues last year. We have never had that kind of trouble with motors in one season like we did last year.

“Once we had a screw that had somehow fell into the engine and damaged the pistons, just crazy stuff like that.”

The Wilhite racing legacy began with Virgil Wilhite and his son Steve in 1969, when Edinburgh resident Tony Hernandez drove their first racecar, a 1957 Chevy.

“My dad grew up in Trafalgar and was dirt poor,” Steve recalled. “He didn’t participate in sports. We then moved to Edinburgh, and he started working for the town. We started to go to the dirt track races in Taylorsville, and then we decided to get a car in ’69.

“What really got me and my dad interested in getting a racecar was from Don Neville. He lived right here in Edinburgh and owned a Clark Oil station. I would go over there and check out the racecar he had. It was a ’55 Chevy. I went back and told my dad we should build one.”

The family raced at Brownstown, Columbus and Twin Cities during that first year and struggled initially.

“The car just wouldn’t run,” said Steve, 68, who graduated from Edinburgh High School in 1965.

The late Tony Hernandez, a Texas native and former bull rider, moved to Edinburgh and married Steve Wilhite’s aunt. He drove for the Wilhite team before moving on to drive for himself.

The Wilhites then hired close family friend Kenny Bryant to drive the car. After Bryant stepped out of the driver’s seat, the Wilhites brought in Ed Jones to race for them. Jones was a neighbor of Steve’s and helped work on the car when Hernandez and Bryant drove it. Jones drove until 1977, when Steve decided it was time to get behind the wheel.

“We had a 1964 Chevelle, and I wanted to drive it,” he said. “I had worked on the cars all the time before that, so I wanted to give it a try.”

It proved to be a good move, as Steve won the Rookie of the Year award at Brownstown Speedway in 1977.

The Wilhites then hired John Warner of Columbus to drive for them. Warner was a veteran with several years of experience on the local dirt scene. Warner and the Wilhites got together in 1983, and over the next four seasons they racked up a dozen feature wins along with the 1985 and 1986 track championships at Twin Cities Raceway Park in Vernon.

“Big John is one of the greatest guys to be around that I have ever encountered,” Steve Wilhite said. “He was so easy to get along with, he never tore up our equipment. We never had a cross word among us. He was a very good driver. I never saw him race anyone dirty on the race track. We are still great friends to this day.”

Brian Wilhite, 47, graduated from Edinburgh in 1986. He began his racing career in 1987 against his mom’s wishes.

“The money I received from my graduation, I saved to buy a racecar,” he recalled. “When she first heard what I was going to do, she wasn’t very happy with me.”

Brian bought a 1972 Nova from fellow Edinburgh resident Pokie Crawhorn.

“It was a really fast racecar,” he said. “I learned a lot with that car.”

About five years later, Brian switched to a Rayburn Late Model that the team bought from Willie Sallee of Columbus. He had great success in that car, winning the Late Model Rookie of the Year award in 1993 at Brownstown — the same honor his dad had accomplished 16 years earlier.

In 1989, the patriarch of the Wilhite family, Virgil, passed away at the age of 64. He got to see his grandson start his racing career, but never saw him race a Late Model.

“We miss him for sure,” Brian said. “He helped me out at the start of my career. My grandmother is 88 and I still go over to their house and mow her grass. I have done that since I was 11 years old.”

Brian Wilhite has raced a super and crate late model, street stock, and modified over the past several years. He is glad to carry on the family’s racing heritage.

“It’s been a blast to tell you the truth,” he said. “Last year was probably the worst year we ever have had in racing. But we kept our heads up and look forward to this season.

“It has kept me and my dad close over the years. We don’t kid ourselves — we have been underfunded and outdated on our cars since we started. We try and make the most of what we have.”

One of Steve’s proudest moments was when Brian won the trophy dash, heat and feature one night at Whitewater Valley Speedway in Liberty. Another was on his 60th birthday, when his son took him on a two-seater ride around Brownstown Speedway for his 60th birthday.

“In both cases, you couldn’t wipe the smile off of my dad’s face,” Brian said. “That’s what makes all of this so worthwhile.”

Author photo
Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.